There may be nothing in the realm of religion by which people vainly attempt to establish their acceptability to God more than by acts of public or private worship. As a result, worship can degrade into one of the most legalistic activities a person can pursue. In the minds of many, you are right with God if you go to church. They are convinced that anyone who worships God is accepted by Him. Though perhaps they do not expressly state it, they believe that because they discipline themselves to regularly attend an event where the gospel is proclaimed, they have sufficiently participated in the gospel.
Many worshipers fail to realize that it is possible to worship God in vain. In Matthew 15:9, Jesus quotes the rebuke of God given through the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” So people can worship the true God — even with the God-given words and forms of worship — and yet worship in vain.
Jesus said of Himself, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), meaning that apart from a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no access to or genuine worship of God. Of course, more than a mere knowledge of the gospel is needed to worship God. As Jesus declared, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In order to “worship in spirit and truth,” a person must be indwelled by the One who is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive” (John 17:17).
So only those who receive the gospel, that is, who believe the message about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, are given “the Spirit of truth” who enables them to worship God acceptably. But no one can believe a message he has not heard or does not comprehend. In short, a person must have at least a basic understanding of the gospel before he can begin to understand and engage in true worship.
The gospel takes the natural, worldly view that worship is a person justifying himself by reaching up to God and corrects it with the truth that worship is a person responding to the God who has reached down through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
People do not decide to become worshipers of God; rather, the gospel produces worshipers. God, through the gospel, changes a person’s nature such that worship changes from mere participation in the outward forms of veneration into adoration and enjoyment of God from the heart.
God made our hearts, and He made them to find their greatest joy and satisfaction in Himself. So when, through the gospel, we “come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9), our hearts turn to God and open in worship to Him like flowers turn and open to the sun. Thus it is that worship begins with an understanding of the gospel.
The gospel not only prepares us to worship, it guides our worship and sustains us in worship. In biblical worship, the gospel is proclaimed in Word and sacrament; in the worship of God, His gospel is read, preached, and sung. The same gospel message that kindled the initial fire of worship in the believer’s heart rekindles worship as the gospel is proclaimed and remembered.
We also need the gospel during worship in part because of the sins we commit in worship. We may sing, speak, or pray thoughtlessly or hypocritically in various moments of worship. The application of the gospel to our minds and hearts in worship encourages us that our sins during worship are forgiven and that the Lord receives us even though our worship is imperfect.
The gospel reminds us that our worship, although flawed, is acceptable — not because of what we do or how well we do it, but because of what Christ did for us. He made worshipers out of rebels, and because our worship comes to the Father in Jesus’ name, He sanctifies our worship to make it pleasing to the Father.
Yet some can misunderstand the new freedom that comes through the gospel and think that subsequent worship is unimportant. Thus, they use their gospel “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13) and begin to neglect worship. So worship — both public and private — should also be a discipline in that believers must sustain an intentionality about worship, and by this overcome the temptation to allow worship to be crowded out by “the cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22).
Love of the gospel and love of worshiping the God of the gospel are inseparable. A true grasp of the former leads to devotion to the latter.